Lately I keep coming back to a Peter Handke poem, one perhaps best known to North Americans through Wings of Desire (1987). Als das Kind Kind war / wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war, comes as gentle a voice-over as the German language allows: “When the child was a child / It did not know it was a child.” And later:
When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just an illusion of a world before the world?
Given the facts of evil and people.
does evil really exist?
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?
For some, “Song of Childhood” might seem pretentious because of the film (European art cinema not being to everyone’s taste). For others, Peter Handke’s humanness–his flaws, which perhaps came out most publicly around the trial of Slobodan Milošević, and in a speech at Milošević’s funeral–withered love for this work as well. Even just as a secular humanist, I find that certain terms in the poem fall flat every time, and yet, its ending always bothers me in just the right way:
Als das Kind Kind war,
warf es einen Stock als Lanze gegen den Baum,
und sie zittert da heute noch.
When the child was a child,
It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,
And it quivers there still today.
It’s a subtle image, because the stick never quivered like a lance in the first place–it was always just an idea in the child’s head–and yet, the idea of the act perseveres.
So much, wanted or otherwise, perseveres.
I come back to this poem often, I think, because I feel very much an adult these days, but I also know how arbitrary that construct is: adulthood, adultness. For one, I have to be careful not to take exhaustion with or withdrawal from the world as metrics of true maturity. As Nazim Hikmet wrote, “Living is no laughing matter: / You must live with great seriousness, / like a squirrel, for example–” And I try. Sometimes I try too hard, and feel ashamed and even more exhausted for the attempt.
Mostly, though, adultness is, for me, a matter of being able to forgive, if not understand, individuals who trespass against me, while holding systemic failures to a higher standard, and knowing when to stand against them; to accept greater social roles and maintain personal responsibility within all of them; to value patience and my work; and to be comfortable being alone, to love silence and the reflections it brings.
I also have to avoid forgetting that this arbitrary sense of adultness is fraught with day-to-day inconsistencies: the petty word, the absurd preoccupation, the inexplicably routine transgression against ideals and even people we hold dear. I recently finished Best of Enemies (2015), a documentary about the heated 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, and found myself sympathetic to Buckley’s subsequent obsession with trying to understand why he’d burst on live TV into a brutal undermining of all his best attempts at enlightened discourse: “Now listen you queer. Quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Obviously, there’s a lot of pride at work in fixating on one’s indiscretions to such a degree, but that’s probably why I resonated so much with Buckley then, and with how that incident shaped him in years to come: Ego figures at the height and the heart of all my breaking points, too.
In Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), there is a famous (infamous?) moment when Jesus in the desert confronts an angel who asks, “Do you remember when you were a small child still unable to walk, you clung to the door of your house and to your mother’s clothes so that you would not fall, and you shouted within yourself, shouted loudly, ‘God, make me God! God, make me God! God, make me God!'” Jesus begs not to be reminded of that “shameless blasphemy” (the entire point of the volume being that, if Jesus wasn’t at least tempted by sin and related emotional excesses, he didn’t really live as a man, and therefore his sacrifice would be meaningless). And yet, we live in a Christian-influenced culture where the opposite of such “blasphemy”–namely, the wholehearted celebration of brokenness–thrives right alongside market forces very much attempting to convince people of the attainability of perfection.
Whenever I conflate exhaustion and maturity, I suspect it’s this tug-of-war that wears at me most: the oscillation between celebrating our wildest aspirations and singing to the hills about our deepest setbacks. However, for better or for worse, these are the ideas that frame most of our culture’s conversation about what it means to be human, and to live a good life. Maybe if I’d been born into different circumstances–a member of a nomadic people that spends most of its life in isolation; a citizen of a small island where everyone knows everyone else’s business already–I would have a more surefooted set of social narratives to confront whenever I leave my own shell. But I don’t.
I have, at thirty, attained a level of calm and deliberation unlike any I’ve known before.
And yet, something quivers still today. Echoes from the past. A damned nuisance of a fantasy in the present.
One of my favourite works in Best European Fiction 2916 comes from Hungary. Krisztina Tóth’s contribution is an excerpt from a collection of short stories, Pixel, in which each story is named after a body part. Her theme involves how abstract metrics of humanness are just as fragmented as our concrete selves: how our personal and cultural memories, our day-to-day impressions of ourselves and others, are erratic mosaics even at their most coherent. There are four stories in the excerpt, but I found the first two especially haunting.
In “The Hand’s Story,” the image of a hand is assigned to a six-year-old boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, abruptly slaughtered at the first paragraph’s end. But was it a boy at all? Or was it a girl, at Auschwitz, who survives? Or does the hand belong to her friend later in life, a woman abandoned as a child by a mother with only two passes to escape the war, and now, all grown up, with a son of her own? “Naturally this has nothing to do with the other boy with the same name seen in the Warsaw Ghetto, whom everyone soon forgot. This David wasn’t forgotten.” But is that true, either? “Naturally, none of this is certain. The names drift around us, it would be difficult to follow up on each one.”
The disruption of linear narrative is a common device in Eastern European fiction, but no less true outside causes like the Holocaust and WWII. How many of us know what our grandparents were like when they were children? The names of everyone in our kindergarten classes, or all the people who helped our parents when we were very small? And does it matter? Does the story not, for all its shifting names and dates, go on?
In “The Neck’s Story,” that level of uncertainty is revisited in a single life: When a woman beelines from a change room, her daughter thinks she’s just insecure about dressing up at her age. In actuality, the older woman has come across something that profoundly reorders a series of memories–one little detail in the change room that unravels all her latent pride in a youthful moment, and leaves her only with the realization of past foolishness. It’s one of those revelations impossible to contextualize for anyone around her (certainly not for her daughter), though it constitutes a landslide within one life: a reminder that all our narratives are contingent and precarious–and that maybe some of our dearest, our most fanciful delusions, are even more so.
I had a frivolous thought the other day–nursed it, built plans around it, and let it consume a chunk of mental energy before I let it go. When I’d set it safely aside, I wondered how many more frivolous thoughts I’d have in my lifetime. A thousand? A hundred thousand? Tens of millions? I wondered, too, at the supreme arrogance of thinking that just because I know there are more pressing concerns in life, I’m somehow above indulging in the petty and the absurd.
But still: What strange creature is a human being, that it oscillates so frequently from major to minor themes and back again?
I asked a variation of this question in the class I teach this term, after negotiating the social contract in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas” (1973) and the socio-religious contract that Ivan condemns in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). I wanted to know how the students felt about going through the world hearing of horrors at home and abroad, accidental and intentional alike, and then measuring these sadnesses against the more immediate concerns in their lives: what to eat for lunch, how to pay rent, which courses to take, whether to confront a coworker over some malingering slight. How did it feel to know that they had been born into a social contract not of their own devising, but also that they upheld this contract in a million tacit ways every day?
I wanted to know, but the question hung in the air, until one of my rattling coughs spared students the inevitability of response. Maybe they would have had exceptional answers, if the last throes of my weekend flu hadn’t compelled me to hurry the class to its end. Or maybe they would have had no answer, no matter how long I waited them out, because there was simply no answer to give: because I was asking fish in water to identify an essential fishness separate from the water they swim in. As if the possibility ever existed for them to swim in anything else.
What strange creature is a human being?
One chapter of my dissertation opens with Psalm 8:3-4 in the King James Version, which was favoured among 19th-century Christian writers, and which, for all its eccentricities and inconsistencies, often holds closer than modern Christian bibles to the complicated spirit of the original Hebrew. For instance, in Psalm 8:3-4, two Hebrew words are used to describe human beings with different levels of fragility:
3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; 4 What is man [enosh], that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man [ben Adam], that thou visitest him?
Modern bibles tend to swap out “son of man” for “mankind” or “human beings” because this term, used by Yahweh to address Ezekiel and Daniel, and in general reference to individuals or whole tribes in their weakest sense, has a different resonance in Christian theology. Christ is recorded by the anonymous authors of the gospels as referring to himself as the “son of man”–in the same way many Jewish persons seemed to in prior generations; the way we might say “myself” today, if we still carried hierarchies of humility in our pronouns. Thus, applications of ben Adam that complicate the link between Ezekiel, Daniel, and the New Testament are cut from Americanized texts like the New International Version, and maintained in other places with explicit footnotes pursuant to their presumed prophetic function.
In my studies of a period in astronomy’s history when Christian theology still played a significant role in surrounding discourse, I find plenty of opportunity to dabble in biblical nuance: to shake my head at historical revisionism, and the smallness of these source texts in so many ways, and the idea that these, these are the stories on which so much of the contemporary Western world was founded. It’s only well after a given research moment, when I’ve had time to cool my proverbial heels, that I realize how much I still empathize with many of those ancient writers. The original “Psalmist,” for instance, looked to the skies with a specific understanding of the universe, and struggled to orient himself within it. Surely there is more curiosity, more integrity in that questing spirit, than one often finds in people who prefer a literalist approach to those texts today, when we have so many other modes of understanding at our disposal. In light of that struggle, then, my question and the Psalmist’s aren’t so dissimilar after all:
What strange creature is a human being?
Our answers, of course, differ immensely, but even then, only because I have access to information not at his disposal. Would he not think differently today? Wouldn’t I, in his context? So in the absence of religious notions of destiny–in light, that is of modern biology and sociology–a human being is, for me, a creature of fixations, with an overarching desire for stimulus that (for now) more often perpetuates the species than not. Pulses of light and sound (music, speeches, video) enliven us to sensations we call anger, pity, amusement, but even though we’ve grown more nuanced in our reactions, our articulations of personal narrative, the knee-jerk impulses remain. Whole lifestyles therefore preoccupy themselves with reactive stillness: retraining the body to do less, say less, be less. And yet the body remains: easy to break, easy to tire, easy to provoke.
Put another way, we’ve got good reason to believe we’re bundles of algorithms formed by an admixture of biological potential and myriad environmental forces, most of which we can never perfectly connect to specific outcomes in our thoughts and actions. But in that inability to directly link everything we do and say with everything that preceded a given moment’s “impulse,” our imaginations thrive, our egos inflate, and we foster a theory of the self as a conscious, coherent, “free” agent in the universe.
No wonder, then, that the routine we vowed not to repeat (but do), or the frivolous thought we thought we’d overcome (but hadn’t), or the unexpected harm we thought we’d never commit (but did), becomes such a nuisance. Such flaws in the system are gentle reminders that this theory of a coherent self, with an ability to will itself consistently into certain forms of action, fails to account for all the evidence about who we are, and how our bodies interact in the world.
An illusion of self is all that remains. A story that comes and goes. But what use is that?
In this story, the body wakes–on the days when it wakes well–with a sense of limitless potential. It feels the presence of the sun and hears the intermittent rush of traffic in the streets below, and thinks itself a potent part of something larger. Its eyes are still tired but its arms ghost about the rooms, our lizard-brain more fully awake before the rest.
Moreover, the body hasn’t heard its own voice in hours, and as it readies for the day, it entertains the thought of there being one word–the right word–with which to begin. The sound of clearing its throat, gargling and spitting, casts aspersions on this notion. The careless waste of that first full word on something minor, something about the coffee or the dishes or the cat, further tempers expectations that this is it, this will be the day.
Still. There are other ways to improve. This will be the day, the body says, for more silence. More kindness. More speaking, if it must, with perfect equipoise only on subjects that matter. More avoiding idle banter, and speech for the sake of speech.
The body gets all the way to the bus stop before running into another body it recognizes, and which poses a friendly query about the weather. The body responds automatically with some curious block of sounds that serves a vague performative function. Yes. Hello. Ridiculous weather. Wish it would stop, let us catch our breaths. Are you off to work, too?
So much for precise, judicious speech.
The body picks up the cadence of other bodies over the day. Feels itself pulled along different narrative paths with each interaction, each new body in the throes of its own essential itness. The body responds to other’s needs with increasingly bewildering losses to that break-of-dawn sense of clarity. The body makes mistakes, gets exasperated, and eventually gives over to the tumult of personal speech on well-worn themes once, twice, maybe a dozen times before the end of the working day. Exhilarating, at times. But draining always. A buzz in its thoughts as the body tries to put the fragments together. Where did that little monologue come from? Why so much heat in such an offhand response?
On the bus ride home, the body accounts for its exhaustion input by input: need food, need sleep, need exercise, need contact, need mindless stimulation for a while. It has a book with it. A good one, the kind that expands the inner world. It plays games on the phone instead. In the relative silence of the rush-hour commute it hears itself once more: a distinct being in a crowd of distinct beings, all with distinct hopes and dreams that grew a little clouded over the course of day. The body remembers the urgent promise of its own morning. Resents anything that will disrupt the inner voice again.
But that sense of potential is more unstable this time around. After so much activity in the day, the body is tired, yet still itching to make good on all its scattered intentions and lost opportunities. This is one hour in which the body makes impulsive choices, trying to corral a coherent sense of self through short messages into the void, messages that invariably try too hard, saying at once too little and too much. Minutes pass, and through the magic of wireless communication, response pours in: some sharing credulously in the exercise; but most glibly, in tangents and non sequiturs. Either way, the effort remains Lacanian, even if the body doesn’t know the word “Lacanian”: accompanied, that is, by the sense that, simply in making the attempt to connect, the body has already confirmed its essential distance from other bodies–and as such, has already lost the war.
It’s not all despondent work, though, this business of being a body in a world of bodies, one huge, taut bundle of nerves among 7.3 billion. For instance, the body might have any number of counterpoints at the end of its commute: children, a partner, parents, housemates, pets, an unfinished final season and a dram of the good stuff. Each, in its own way, prompting routines, gestures, capacities for touch that might make the whole day’s efforts seem absurd: How could the body ever have thought that the right word would somehow set all its affairs in order? How laughable! Now it knows better, though. Now it knows that any feeling of home, of belonging, is simply the body at its most immersed in the present. So some nights, the body is lucky; some nights, the body forgets itself.
Some nights, though, the body lies awake for hours.
Thinking: Is my itness enough? Is my itness too much?
Wondering: Which is worse? Or does it matter at all?
Walt Whitman was no heir-apparent to his contemporary literary legacy. Rather, like most of us, he struggled to find his place, and the causes to which to dedicate his life. He made no shortage of hostile acquaintances during his early years in journalism, and he loathed the teaching life that had come before. His most famous work, Leaves of Grass (1855), first arose in the wake of media efforts towards a renewed democracy and the abolition of slavery, but the collection didn’t achieve significant commercial success until an 1882 edition. This left Whitman to cope with personal and familial strife, alongside the Civil War, before anything resembling stability took hold of his life. Even then, Whitman kept working that famous set of poems celebrating the human, in body and spirit alike, right until his death, which only gives further credence to two of the poem’s 1855 declarations:
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
That notion of beginning at thirty-seven–at any stage of life, really–gives me the most pause in all Whitman’s work, as I think back to how many tedious times I tried to start the clock anew. How many lives do we live in one life, anyway? How many can we, before the weight of preceding lives–their foibles and routines–invariably creeps in?
In posing this question, I realize I could have quoted from Dashiell Hammett just as easily–specifically, from The Maltese Falcon (1929), when Sam Spade tells a story about a missing man found living another life after a near-fatal encounter with a falling beam:
Flitcraft had been a good citizen amid a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.
It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.
“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”
In both Whitman and Hammett, the body’s contradictions still uphold an underlying order, and for all life’s chaos, this one consistency cannot be escaped: You will remain a creature of habit, no matter how many lives you live. You cannot run away from yourself without taking yourself with you. But so what?
This is a problem, surely (says my Devil’s advocate), only for people who spend too much time inside their heads. What’s so bad about exchanging a friendly word at the bus stop? Speak! And lighten up. Drink more. Drink less. Accept the limits of human interaction and enjoy them for what they are. Soon the strange creature you are will be no more, and then your hands, your heart, will be lost somehow–and sooner than you might imagine–to the quicksand of cultural memory.
What was your name again? Does it matter?
Everything passes. Let this pass, too. Just be, man. Just be.
I want to walk with purpose in my adultness. That’s really all this is. At thirty, I feel a calm I haven’t felt before, but it comes with a level of disappointment in every distraction, every word or act that seems to shore up whole wasted hours, wasted days.
No more with these frivolities, I declare (but still, how frivolous I remain: the minor self-pities, the major cultural distractions).
No more with this lack of focus (I hold my fist high, resolute–but still, this very blog post: how many hours from my dissertation?).
No more with the acceptance of mediocrity (although, granted, that acceptance has often served me well, allowing me to forge ahead instead of waiting for perfection).
But then I hear that little voice inside myself–that voice which would so much like to be myself, free from all other dictates in the body, the routines that pay it no heed–and I have to laugh, again, at the sheer audacity, the arrogance of it all.
Me, make me Me! Me, make me Me! Me, make me Me!
Oh, settle down, you.
We’ll get there. We will. And we’ll die in the attempt.
But maybe–if we’re truly lucky–we’ll have made something beautiful, something better along the way.